It was the first warm weekend of spring and our 2-year-old had started already.
"Playground, playground!," she pleaded. What parent can say no?
So we got in the car and drove 10 minutes to the nearest park with equipment scaled for her. Forty-five minutes later we made the return trip. She loved every second of it and so did we.
But, I thought, it sure would be more convenient for all if we had a play set in our back yard. We could keep an eye on her while we work in the gardenand save the driving time as well. And it would be a fun springtime project, a way to lighten up after doing our income taxes.
But what to get? It's as confusing as buying a new car. There are the steel swing sets sold by mass retailers; hardware kits sold by home centers-- where you buy the lumber (hopefully theirs) separately; and the prefabricated kits of redwood, Western cedar or kiln-dried, pressure-treated pine. And, of course, the library has books to help you build one from scratch.
The first thing to do is take the critical measurements: the length and width of the available space, and the depth of one's pockets.
Aesthetics are a consideration, too. If the combination of garishly painted steel and, eventually, rust are not what you enjoy looking at, wood is the alternative. But starting at about $100 for a low-end, basic set, steel is the cheapest option. Wood setsrange from several hundred dollars to well into the thousands depending on the size and type of wood used.
To help sort this all out, I consulted an expert. Michael Goldstein has 13 years experience in the business, first as a manufacturer's representative and now as owner and president of Play N' Learn, an Ellicott City play equipment dealership in its seventh year.
We talked about woods. "Redwood is the most expensive, and it doesn't splinter," Goldstein said. "Pine is more susceptible to 'checking', which is separation of the grain, andsplintering. But it pressure treats well and is cheap."
The pressure-treated pine in kits sold by dealers has been kiln-dried and is abetter grade than that generally sold (still wet) in home centers. From experience I know that as it dries, pressure-treated pine tends to warp -- not good for structural integrity -- and splinter -- not sogood for little hands.
Redwood, cedar and kiln-dried pine is available at better lumberyards, so if you're inclined you could buy a hardware kit, then upgrade the lumber and make it yourself. Of course, that would require a lot of measuring, cutting, beveling, chamfering,sanding nd drilling.
"With the economies of scale we have attained in this business today, you're not saving money" by buying better lumber yourself, Goldstein said.
"As you move into the nicer lines the factory has done more prefabrication," he said. "It's done with hydraulic presses so you get a tighter fit, especially on dowels."
What should you look for in a set?
"Play value -- how many activities it provides," Goldstein said. "Most people want a slide and swings and some sort of clubhouse effect. And there's no federal regulation of our residential equipment safety features. Make sure a set meetsthe guidelines of the Consumer Products Safety Commission. There is what we call the '4-10' rule. Everything should be less than four inches or greater than 10 inches apart to prevent heads from getting caught.
"And warranty length -- what's the policy if something's wrong? They range from 10-40 years on wood, and usually one year on the hardware."
Naturally, you get what you pay for, but there are ways to buy the good stuff and save a few bucks, too.
Installation by adealer adds "roughly about 20 percent of the cost of the unit," Goldstein said.
So if you can handle a level, a hammer, ratchet wrenches, a sledgehammer and bar clamps you can assemble most prefabricatedkits yourself.
"The best advice is to buy something you can add to," Goldstein said. Buy to grow for a 10-year period. You can always add another piece to add novelty back into the unit."
And that maybe the best advice of all. No matter what the cost or color of the play set, if the child loses interest or outgrows it early you may as well plant some clematis around it and turn it into a giant trellis.